Cyclone Lusi damage, warnings and false alarms

Here’s the damage in our backyard after Cyclone Lusi:

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After almost a week of warnings from media and the Metservice as well as two separate notifications sent to my iPhone from Civil Defence, Cyclone Lusi was a bit of an anti-climax. Auckland produces more damaging storms on a semi-regular basis that don’t generate any warnings at all and in fact the tornadoes that killed three people a couple of years ago were preceded by no warnings whatsoever.

This has made me wonder whether they went a bit overboard with the warnings in this instance. I tend not to think so as I always think it’s better to take precautions than be caught unaware, but a friend of mine thought it will have provoked the cry-wolf effect.

Civil Defence personnel, scientists and policy makers have a bit of a dilemma when it comes to communicating risk: fail to communicate the risks and they increase potential loss to life, infrastructure and livelihoods as well as possible charges of manslaughter as the Italian scientists responsible for communicating the earthquake risk in L’Aquila discovered. But false alarms may provoke the cry-wolf effect where the public loses trust in these warnings and so fails to heed advice at times of real danger.

In 2007, Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh taking many lives with it. According to news reports, many locals ignored the warnings because of a false tsunami alarm two months prior.

What can be done here to fix this problem? Should officials in Bangladesh not have issued a tsunami warning? Of course not. I think the problem here is more that people in our society do not understand science, maths and risk. If people were more aware of how science works and the uncertainties that go with it, then I think they’d be less likely to lose trust in situations of false alarm. It is far better, in my view, to issue the alarm, but perhaps it should be issued with some sort of caveat or probability. It might also be useful to communicate the cry-wolf effect so that people are aware of it. I personally would never want policy-makers to observe a cyclone headed my way and to decide that it would be better to keep me ignorant of its existence.